Update, July 2018: Recently Dennis Hope, whose story is featured in this article, shared with us the complaint from a lawsuit he has filed pro se in federal district court in Texas. Hope challenges the constitutionality of his nearly 25 years in extreme solitary confinement, and particularly the lack of justification or any meaningful review process for his ongoing isolation. Attorneys who might be interested in taking on his case pro bono can email info@solitarywatch.com or contact Hope directly at Dennis Hope 579097, Polunsky Unit, 3872 FM 350 South, Livingston, TX 77351.

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According to Dennis Hope, life in the Allan B. Polunsky Unit is like being in a “never-ending torture chamber,” where he must constantly fight to keep his sanity. He has seen others lose the battle — hanging themselves or slicing open their wrists and faces. Some in Polunsky have responded in even more extreme ways: In 2004, Andre Thomas, a man with paranoid schizophrenia, gouged out his eye and ate it.

The Polunsky Unit is a maximum security Texas prison that houses Texas’ Death Row, and is notorious for its restrictive conditions. The men held in its most secure sections are confined to small cells for at least 22 hours per day, and even the few hours they are allowed out are spent in isolation. Most remain there for years or decades.

There is a growing consensus, encompassing everyone from mental health experts to the United Nations, that forcing people to live in such circumstances amounts to torture. Solitary in Texas has faced particularly harsh condemnation. A report from the University of Texas, titled “Designed to Break You,” concluded that solitary confinement in Texas is a form of torture that violates international human rights standards. Even Texas’ largest corrections officers’ union has advocated for the use of solitary confinement in the state to be curtailed–unusual, given that prison unions tend to oppose reform.

But Dennis Hope, who was convicted of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon in 1990, is not facing the death penalty. Nor was he placed in the Polunsky Unit as a result of violent acts in prison. Hope, like hundreds and perhaps thousands of others across the country, is being held in indefinite solitary confinement because he is considered a permanent escape risk.

In September 1990, Hope slipped out of his handcuffs while correctional officers were loading him into a van. He took off running, not pausing when an officer threatened to shoot him, and stripped down to his underwear. When a police officer approached him, he claimed he was training for a triathlon, and the officer let him go.

Eventually, Hope was caught and returned to custody with ten years tacked onto his sentence. In 1994, after the appeal for his case was denied, he escaped again. This time, he and two others turned off the power to the unit, disabled the backup generators, and jumped the fence. Correctional officers shot at him but missed. He ran 26 miles to another town, but was caught again a little over two months later.

This time Hope was given 25 years for the escape and placed in solitary confinement, where he has been ever since. Because his cumulative sentences add up to more than a life sentence, he will likely remain there until he dies.

While Hope is reviewed every six months to determine his eligibility for release from solitary, the outcome of the hearing has never once, in 22 years, been positive. Each time he is reviewed, he is told that he will remain in solitary because of his 1994 escape. “That will never change,” Hope wrote in a letter to Solitary Watch, “so what’s the purpose of the hearings? We are denied meaningful reviews and they could care less how it effects our mental health.

Hope is not the only one suffering indefinite isolation in Polunsky for escape. Steven Jay Russell, a nonviolent con artist convicted of stealing over $200,000, also escaped multiple times, including by feigning a heart attack and faking his own death from AIDS. He once walked out of a facility after using highlighters to dye his prison uniform green, the color of the prison doctors’ scrubs.

These glimpses of the free world were relatively short-lived, and happened decades ago — his most recent re-capture was in 1998. But they permanently cost Russell his freedom. With 144 years on his sentence, he too will spend the rest of his life in prison — and, almost certainly, in solitary confinement.

Though Administrative Segregation, where Hope and Russell are imprisoned, is separated from Death Row, the increased security and more extreme restrictions affect the entire unit. Hope describes more lockdowns, fewer hot meals, and a greater number of forbidden items (the list includes everything from nail clippers to boxer shorts with elastic). He also alleges that the guards beat up prisoners who speak to them the wrong way, to “teach them a lesson about respect.”

The harsh conditions at Polunsky have deeply affected the mental and physical health of the people incarcerated there. Hope says he deals with anxiety daily and rarely manages more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep. He also struggles to maintain focus and remember words during conversations. Russell, meanwhile, is in a wheelchair due to osteoarthritis that contributed to a hip fracture, and that was likely aggravated by long-term confinement in a small cell.

Yet compared to some of the others incarcerated at Polunsky, these men are relatively healthy. Hope says he “manages the madness” through routines to keep his mind and body in shape. Even so, the “chaos” of Polunsky — with its constant cacophony of people yelling, talking to themselves, cursing, and banging on walls — threatens to overwhelm him sometimes. “If you don’t block it out,” he says, “it will consume you and you’ll be the one arguing with others, cursing out the officers or trying to kill yourself.”

The practice of placing escapees in indefinite solitary, with no chance to ever get out, is a national phenomenon. Amy Fettig of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project says that it is common to find “prison systems inflicting permanent isolation on prisoners who attempt to escape — even years or decades after their attempt — no matter what their behavior has been in the interim.”

Richard Matt and David Sweat, for example, made headlines after escaping from Clinton Correctional Facility in New York State in 2015. Both were eventually shot; Matt was killed and Sweat was wounded and captured. Sweat is now imprisoned in solitary, where he is confined for 23 hours a day in a cell specifically designed to “limit movement.”

Meanwhile, Joyce Mitchell, the correctional officer who helped them escape, received a sentence of up to seven years in prison. The disparity between the consequences for Sweat and Mitchell reflects a dynamic typical of prison escapes: Escapes are, Fettig says, “all too often linked to staff misconduct, incompetence or both,” but it is the prisoner who take the fall.

Fettig attributes this outcome to prisons “reacting with humiliation and extreme vengeance” against escapees. Nothing angers prison staff more than an escape, even a failed one, especially if it has garnered media attention. And since it is prison staff alone who determine who gets placed in solitary confinement — and how long they remain there–most captured escapees don’t stand a chance. Even in states that are reducing their use of solitary confinement, offering “step-down” programs to individuals with records of violent behavior in prison, escapees are usually exempt.

Russell agrees, describing his placement in solitary as “political.” His current physical disabilities would appear to render him incapable of escaping again. But his multiple successes at tricking the prison system — which in 2009 became the subject of a feature film —  caused extreme humiliation to his captors, and brought down a response that to many seems grossly disproportionate to his entirely nonviolent crimes.

Such revenge-based policies, Fettig says, are unnecessary and counterproductive. They ignore the basic security problems that lead to escape — or, as Russell puts it, prisons’ failure to “keep the front door locked.”

Ultimately, placing escapees in indefinite solitary confinement “doesn’t lead to safer, more secure prisons,” Fettig says. “It leads to inhumane institutions that harm people and fail to learn from mistakes.”

Banner Photo: Police stand over David Sweat after he was shot and captured near the Canadian border June 28, 2015, in Constable, N.Y.  | AP

17 thoughts on “Decades After Prison Escapes, Men Face Life in Solitary Confinement With No Way Out

  1. These losers are on death row because they are killers. They get what they deserve. They should suffer just like their victims and their victims families. So tough shit

  2. The problem with people like you is that you fail to realize that he was not sentenced to solitary confinement by a judge or jury. The prison system itself is the judge, jury, and executioner. There is no due process, and no external review. And is easy to say that everyone there is guilty, but there have been many people exonerated due to DNA evidence as well.

    Basically you just support giving the prison system a Carte Blanche to do whatever they want to people, instead of ensuring that they do not abuse their power, which at one time was the whole philosophy of America. I’m all for punishing criminals, but I do not have a “they deserve whatever they get” attitude when people are killed in scalding hot showers, through starvation, brutal force, or other prison abuses. In those cases the prison guards and wardens are criminals that get literally get away with murder.

  3. Isaiah 59:16

    He was amazed to see that no one intervened
    to help the oppressed.
    So he himself stepped in to save them with his strong arm,
    and his justice sustained him.

  4. News flash…Death row IS solitary confinement 23 hours a day. He’s not a Boy Scout he’s a KILLER

  5. Alrightythen…soon as you figure out a better way to run a facility full of mostly schizophrenic, psychopathic criminally conditioned malignant convicts contact your state representatives to get that shit rolling. Life is what you make of it. The path you end up on depends on choices so spare me your BS

  6. Hello! I just ran across this site and couldn’t leave without commenting..I was kept in Solitary for 5 years by the Military for an Escape in 1999..It’s hard for me to read these stories because it reopens those old doors deep inside my head that I have crammed far far away…

  7. Dennis Hope if he had not attempted to escape would be out of prison by now his original sentence of 25 years in 1995 for armed robbery was fair sentence the escape attempts added on now he is in for life.

  8. Jade marks are you slow and can’t read the whole article is talking about escapes. None of the men they are actually writing about here are in for murder. I agree with you if that was at all what was said but it said escapes some with completely non violent crimes like being a con man. Dennis hope impersonated armored cars without using a weapon. However I believe he has been charged w armed robbery before as well. The point is this article specifically was talking about solitary confinement for people who are not murderers some completely none violent bit still being held for decades the same as people on death row. That’s messed up. Can’t hold someone that long just the same way you hold the worst of the worst that get death.

  9. Wow I didn’t read all the remarks but after I commented I read more of jade marks ignorant post. My gosh you couldn’t sound more ignorant. What are you talking about killer? Did we even read the same article no one was talking about the men in solitary because they are on death row. Please actually read what you are commenting on b4 you speak.

  10. Those conditions for life in my opinion are worse than the death penalty. I can see giving them that for a period of time for an escape but not life in solitary. Again people who are not violent and are not “killers” as jade marks who can’t read said.

  11. Those conditions for life in my opinion are worse than the death penalty. I can see giving them that for a period of time for an escape but not life in solitary. Again people who are not violent and are not “killers” as jade who can’t read said.

  12. Oh one last thing Kelly what you said is not accurate. Dennis hope’s initial charges where in 1990. There were 8 of them. All were 30 yrs except one for 20 yrs and one for 80 yrs. I’m not sure if that was consecutive or concurrent but much longer than 25 yrs as you said. That charge in 1995 was his second and last escape that he received 25 yrs for. His first was in 1990 few mths after being sentenced. Although yes with parole boards he may have been out by now had he not escaped but as far as the amount of yrs he got no he would not.

  13. If you look at his actions not like he escaped and laid low he fell right back into his old ways of armed robbery. There are people who escape and live out normal lives for years there have been a few who were able to live into their 70’s before being caught. People make mistakes but if you continue to rob people with guns danger to society. I’m not for long sentencing I would rather see people get a 2nd chance with careful monitoring. Some will never be able to control their impulses have to be kept in prison for safety of the public like child molester who can’t really stop doing that just an example. If you get out of prison and go right back to crime what can you do.

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